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Leaders in the Hawaii Legislature moved beyond generalities on housing, homelessness and fiscal order to identify specific priorities in their opening-day speeches Wednesday.
While more details await legislation and committee work, the ideas include a biodigester on Maui that could help the Valley Isle produce biofuels and natural gas for vehicles. That could serve as relief for an island suffering the recent closure of its last sugar mill.
Leaders also promised to push to take better care of seniors by providing medical training to caregivers once patients return home from the hospital, and to make sure all Hawaii doctors treat patients who rely on federal social safety nets.
And lawmakers expressed a lot of aloha for colleagues and former colleagues who are struggling with personal health issues.
House Speaker Joe Souki jabbed gently at political pundits, saying that conventional wisdom holds that, this being an election year, representatives won’t do anything to upset voters.
Not necessarily, said Souki in his speech: “I am not asking you to upset voters, but to be bold in this election year and do what needs to be done for the greater good. We cannot lose the momentum we have built up.”
To that end, the Maui lawmaker dropped a few bold ideas.
Topping the list is the conversion of commercial leasehold lands in Hawaii to fee simple status. Leaseholders can use property for a fixed period, but not own it; fee simple status is the most common form of direct, private land ownership.
“We can level the playing field and change for the better the business landscape across the state if we are willing to re-invent the rules that govern commercial leasehold lands,” he said.
Souki said Hawaii had implemented a fee simple conversion before, with lands that support single-family and multi-family homes. Doing so, he argued, gave “the ordinary working person” a shot at true homeownership.
The speaker threw out some other bones with meat on them as well: the introduction of a bill requiring all doctors in Hawaii to treat Medicare and Medicaid patients (“to help our kupuna”), and raising the counties’ share of the hotel tax (to “help us support our No. 1 industry, tourism”).
On the second proposal, the House may find collaborators in the Senate, where a new bill calls for a sizable increase in the amount transient accommodations tax revenues that the counties would receive. Senate President Ron Kouchi, who represents Kauai, introduced the bill at the request of the state auditor. How well that will sit with the chairs of the House and Senate money committees, who are both from Oahu, remains to be seen.
Speaking of kupuna (elders), Souki insisted that a bill that failed last year — one calling for medical training for caregivers when older loved ones come home from the hospital — be passed this year. Members of AARP Hawaii, wearing their familiar red T-shirts, applauded enthusiastically from the gallery.
Souki’s ideas, many of which have run into legislative walls in recent sessions, are sure to attract opposition. But he seemed game for the fight, and he pointed out that previously unimaginable legislation — allowing, for example, medical marijuana dispensaries, a public-private deal for Maui hospital, or encouraging the use of solar panels for home electricity — had become reality.
Souki also used a sports analogy: Texas Christian University coming from 31 points behind in the Alamo Bowl earlier this month.
“I believe we are on a roll, with momentum on our side,” he said. “And that is not a small thing.”
Souki also reiterated the House and Senate’s oft-cited push for more affordable housing and more help for the homeless; tighter scrutiny of state contracts; modernizing education infrastructure; paying down unfunded liabilities; and fine-tuning the medi-pot clinics. But he offered few specifics during his speech or in a House leadership meeting with press afterwards.
Souki said that legalizing recreational marijuana was not on the table this session. Vice Speaker John Mizuno said he wasn’t holding his breath that a lottery bill would be approved, either, though he noted the interest in wake of Powerball mania. The key for such legislation would be to make sure the revenue from a lottery went to education and public health programs, he said.
For her part, Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang said her caucus looked forward to working closely with Souki and Majority Leader Scott Saiki. She said that she would not criticize any measure on the House floor “without also articulating an alternative solution to the problem the introducer is trying to address.”
“It’s not about us,” she said, with Souki nodding appreciatively from the podium. “It’s not about our titles. It’s not about our names on a bill.”
Opening day in the House started on an emotional moment when U.S. Rep. Mark Takai delivered the invocation.
Takai, who spent 20 years in the House before his election to Congress two years ago, told his former colleagues, “I really miss you guys.”
He also said, “I am doing well,” without noting that he is undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. But he didn’t have to, as everyone in the chamber knew. Takai posed for lots of photos afterwards.
There was also some drama in the House, when a kupuna rose from her seat in the gallery to chant. She said she represented a sovereign nation and was there to give notice that the Legislature is an “illegal entity.”
“Thank you very much,” said a surprised Souki, who immediately order House Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Kuroda to intervene.
“I have the right,” said the woman. “My country, not yours.”
The moment ended peacefully, but the House quickly called a recess to restore some order.
Kouchi gave a succinct primer on democracy in his opening day remarks on the chamber floor.
“The function of democracy is to embrace dissent and minority opinion,” he said, noting the importance of fostering an environment in which people are unafraid to express their views.
“But the majority must carry the day,” he said.
Kouchi spoke for 12 minutes in his first opening day speech since becoming president at the end of last session, taking a moment to recognize his predecessor, Donna Mercado Kim. Senate factions realigned in a way that forced her to pass the gavel in May to Kauai’s sole senator.
He quickly moved through priorities for the 2016 session, including a biodigester for Maui, a focus on making quality health care affordable statewide and steps to address homelessness throughout the islands.
With the collapse of Hawaii’s last sugarcane plantation in January, several hundred Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company employees lost their jobs on the Valley Isle. Alexander & Baldwin owns the 36,000-acre plantation.
For several years, Kouchi said, the state Agribusiness Development Corporation has been working to try to get a biodigester sited on Maui. He said the digester could produce biofuels, natural gas for vehicles and with the correct additives, hog feed at half the cost that ranchers are currently paying. He said there’s an opportunity here that the Legislature should support.
Kouchi’s statements were admittedly a “general statement of where we’d like to go,” but he said specifics of how to achieve these goals and others will be forthcoming in the next few days as bills are introduced.
The deadline to introduce non-administrative bills, grants and subsidies is Friday. Gov. David Ige is set to deliver his State of the State address Monday, the same day the administration must also submit its own bills. The cutoff for all other legislation comes Wednesday.
Kouchi said Sen. Jill Tokuda will put forward a comprehensive package aimed at homelessness. He also said that health care — while not cited in recent polls as a top priority among the public — is “one of the most important issues facing us,” particularly in rural communities on the neighbor islands.
For Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican, the mission this session can be summed up in one word: accountability.
“The Legislature must be more accountable for unfulfilled promises, wasted tax money, poorly written contracts and unenforceable legislation,” he said. “The Legislature is accountable for failing to penalize poor performance by government and/or excusing individual bad or corrupt behavior.”
Slom said the state’s $26 billion biennial operating budget is “bloated” and in deficit-spending mode, not to mention the $28 billion unfunded liability in pension benefits promised to public workers.
“While we talk of change, we don’t change,” he said. “Problems of a decade ago — or even longer — are still problems in Hawaii today: back-breaking taxes, homelessness, the high cost of living, diminishing economic diversity, replacing our aging infrastructure, cooling our classrooms, among others.”
Kouchi also set the tone for how he expects lawmakers to conduct business, pointing at Sen. Breene Harimoto as the model.
Harimoto, a first-term senator and former Honolulu City Council member, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July.
Kouchi said when he first saw Harimoto, he thought he looked like someone he would’ve taken his lunch money from growing up. But after seeing “the strength and the courage” in his battle against cancer, he said he doesn’t think he would have prevailed.
“It has been troubling to me that in the public meetings that have been occurring from Kauai to the Big Island, that the public discourse has not been civil. People seem to think that we need to yell and scream louder than the next person, and that by name calling we can be successful,” Kouchi said.
“If we can conduct ourselves with the dignity and humility and strength that has been exhibited by Sen. Harimoto since he’s been fighting his battle with cancer, then we can achieve the kind of heart-to-heart and civil discourse that we all aspire to live up to when conducting the people’s business.”
While Harimoto was present, Sen. Gil Kahele was absent. Kahele was at Queen’s Hospital undergoing medical tests, but Kouchi said he is in good spirits and hopes to be released soon.
“Our thoughts and well wishes go out to Sen. Kahele and his family,” Kouchi said. “His family requests privacy at this time. Sen. Kahele would like to say ‘Mahalo nui loa’ for the support, thoughts and prayers and he looks forward to returning to his Senate duties.”